Alejandra Pizarnik - An outstanding Argentinian poet, a silent woman who sometimes flows with language, speaks of social isolation and not belonging

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Alejandra Pizarnik, Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962–1972, Trans. by Yvette Siegert, New Directions, 2016.

There is an aura of almost legendary prestige that surrounds the life and work of Alejandra Pizarnik.
César Aira

First the first time, Argentine poet Pizarnik’s harrowing, decade-spanning opus can be read in an English translation, in this hefty dual-language edition. The chronologically organized collection—which includes her books Works and Nights (1965), Extracting the Stone of Madness (1968), A Musical Hell (1971), and a series of posthumously published poems that led up to her 1972 suicide at age 36—serves as a journey toward the labyrinthine depths of depression. “It closes in on me,” she writes of death in one of her later pieces, “it is my only horizon.” Pizarnik’s poems flare up like deep, bright flames, and they put into stark relief the vivid descriptions of lilacs, shadows, masks, silence, and multiple selves to which she obsessively returns. The poem is a lifeline for her: “I redo the body of my poem like someone who tries to cure her own wound.” Yet the deeper she searches for a remedy through language, the more limiting and disorienting the language becomes: “who is speaking in this room full of eyes? Who gnaws with a mouth made of paper? Names that come up, shadows with masks. Cure me of this void, I said.” Pizarnik’s anguish is palpable and mirrors the intense blaze of her all-too-brief life. - Publishers Weekly

In her book Dark Museum (2015), Argentinian critic and poet María Negroni provides this description of the Gothic: “Between ideology and crime, the Gothic opts for an epic of intensity, one that rehabilitates madness as a via negativa even as it posits improbability as an antidote to transcendence.” The darkly beautiful poems of the great Argentinian writer Alejandra Pizarnik (1936–1972) generate an immersive, Gothic atmosphere in which art is both violence and respite, contamination and antidote, hell and paradise. If it is true, as Calvin Bedient argues in “Against Conceptualism,” that we live in an era when “concept has trumped feeling,” then Pizarnik’s poetry is a welcome antidote—dramatic, brutally affecting, and saturated.
The intoxicating new volume Extracting the Stone of Madness, translated by Yvette Siegert, brings together Pizarnik’s last three collections—Works and Nights (1965), Extracting the Stone of Madness (1968), and A Musical Hell (1971)—as well as the collected work published after her suicide in 1972. Together with Diana’s Tree (published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2013, also translated by Siegert), a work many consider Pizarnik’s masterpiece, these books collect the fiercely gorgeous poems written during and after the young poet’s four-year residence in Paris, where she read the work of many French writers (Arthur Rimbaud, Antonin Artaud, the Surrealists, Marguerite Duras). She also read the Uruguayan visionary Comte de Lautréamont and developed important friendships with fellow Latin Americans living in Paris at the time, including Octavio Paz and Julio Cortázar. The influence of these writers is palpable in Pizarnik’s increasingly hallucinatory imagery and intensified emotional register.
From the first page of Works and Nights to her last poems, Pizarnik returns again and again to a space of “night” and “death,” an obsessive repetition that turns her work into what Negroni calls an “architecture of excess.” As a Gothic castle keeps adding room after room, Pizarnik piles up line after line, image after image. Hers is not the American ideal of what literary critic Cleanth Brooks, alluding to a line from John Donne, called the “well wrought urn.” Instead, Pizarnik’s maximalist writing shatters ideals of economy. This is not poetry that you “get” and then move on from; it is poetry that opens up a violent space in which you must linger and struggle. In contrast to the “project” book or poem based on a single concept to be contemplated at a distance, Pizarnik’s writing must be undergone: poetry as immersive experience.
Pizarnik’s accumulation is dynamic rather than static, in part as a result of her use of apostrophe, the figure of speech through which the poet addresses an absent or abstract interlocutor. Throughout the poems, the speaker wrestles with a “you,” at times commanding him/her, at times submitting to him/her. This “you” might be conceived of as the reader, as simply another person, or—perhaps most importantly—as the writer herself: the “I” as “you.” If “I” is the writer, it is the writer separated from herself, a stranger to herself—a dynamic that is reflected in the many dolls and “dead girls” that seem to stand in for the poet throughout the book:
A naked mannequin in the wreckage. They set fire to the store window and left you posing like a frozen angel. I’m not making this up: what I’m saying is an imitation of nature, a still life. I am speaking of myself, naturally.
One might see in this volatile sense of identity an elaboration or dramatization of Rimbaud’s famous dictum “I is another.” Though it may have become commonplace for American experimentalists to critique the supposedly stable “I” of lyric poetry, Pizarnik, in sharp contrast, delves into the inherent volatility of writing with an “I.” Or, as she writes in one poem, “If I am anything, it is violence. / The colors scratch against the silence and make decaying animals.” Here “I” is itself violence, a violence that is also the site of art (the “colors” that “scratch”). Pizarnik continues: “The poem is a space and it hurts. / I am not like my doll, who only feeds on bird’s milk.” Not only does the poem “hurt”; it also generates. But that generation—to complete the loop—takes place through negation: the speaker’s doll-double makes the “I” feel absent as well as hungry, ready to devour much more than that trickle of bird’s milk. In the violent space of art, the identity of the poet is at once created and ruined. There is nothing stable about this breakneck “I.”
Both Works and Nights and Diana’s Tree explore the linked volatility of art and identity in short, almost aphoristic fragments that invoke motifs of death, night, and silence. Here is the poem “Silences” in its entirety:
Death always at my side.
I listen to what it says.
And only hear myself.

Through repetition and accumulation, the absences of “night” and “death” paradoxically become highly present. Death, the ultimate absence, is the fullest, most present word in the entire collected volume. Silence not only threatens; it also burns, blossoms, and speaks. It speaks the writer’s self into existence and destroys her in the “frenzied absence of the blank page,” as the “blank” space becomes oversaturated with the poetry of this maelstrom, “this battle with words.” The title’s plural “silences” suggest this volatile relationship between presence and absence.
In the volumes Extracting the Stone of Madness and A Musical Hell, Pizarnik’s fragments grow into long prose poems that feel simultaneously essayistic and dramatic. One might think of these prose pieces as many aphorisms pressed together, intensifying the constant conflicts (between silence and song, death and existence, I and not-I) that constitute her earlier epigrams. These later poems are full of uncertainty, throwing the reader (as well as the writer) into a confounding but also intimate struggle. During the span of a single poem, the speaker changes her mind over and over again:
If only you could see the one who is sleeping without you in the ruined garden of my memory. There I am drunk on a thousand deaths, telling myself about me, if only to see if it’s true that it’s me lying there beneath the grass. . . . What is happening in that green grove? It so happens that it is not even green; there isn’t even a grove. . . . On a white wall, you draw allegories of rest, and they’re always of a mad queen who lies beneath the moon on the sad lawns of an ancestral garden. But don’t speak of gardens. Don’t speak of the moon.
Here, “I” sleeps without the addressee in the poet’s “memory,” but the poet is also “drunk on a thousand deaths” (once more absence is proliferation), suggesting that she—not the addressee—is the absent one. Of course there is also that recurring sense that “I” is “you”: the addressee who “wish[es] to be someone else.” Not only is “I” multiple, but the grove “isn’t even a grove.” The poem is undoing itself, but its undoing is its genesis. Pizarnik interrogates her own language as she uses it. Perhaps this is what it means to be in the beautiful but devastating “hell” of language and art.
While Pizarnik’s poems consistently present an “I” surfeited and even capsized by lyric urgencies, the figure of music represents the beguiling force of poetry itself. Throughout Extracting the Stone of Madness, Pizarnik uses “music” to describe the aesthetics of that which interrupts through its intensity: “It is music, it is death.” This night music reaches its apotheosis in the last book, A Musical Hell. This “musical hell” is a little like Jack Smith’s notorious underground film Flaming Creatures—visually opulent, simultaneously paradisal and infernal, utterly immersive:
So many merging dreams, so many possessions, so many immersions into my dead-little-girl possessions in the garden of lilac and ruins. Death is calling me down by the river. With a torn heart, desolate, I listen to that song of purest happiness.
In ecstatic states, it may not be clear whether we are in paradise or hell, whether the song is happy or sad. This is the experience Pizarnik describes even as she propels herself into its drunkenness, creating a saturated atmosphere that is, as Negroni puts it, the “antidote to transcendence.” Or it might be a kind of anti-transcendence, found precisely in the negation of transcendence, the refusal to elevate poetry into “concept.” Her poetry feels like a constant, intensive refusal that generates its own Gothic beauty and black light: “imminence without a recipient. I see the melody.”
• • •
We might wonder how a poet of Pizarnik’s stature—a poet whose style Raúl Zurita has called “arguably the most imitated and admired by young Latin American poets”—could have received so little attention in the United States. Before Siegert’s translations were published, English readers were limited to the now-out-of-print Alejandra Pizarnik: A Profile (1987), by Frank Graziano, and to Susan Bassnett’s hybrid experiment, Exchanging Lives (2002), which includes Pizarnik’s poems in Bassnett’s translations alongside Bassnett’s own poems, showing how the act of translating Pizarnik influenced Bassnett’s writing. Perhaps the U.S. critical silence simply reflects the fact that few foreign poets are translated into English. But I believe there is something else going on.
In the 1960s, Robert Bly and his cohort of poets and translators, all deeply influenced by Latin American art, shaped the U.S. canon of modern Spanish-language poetry—“Spanish surrealism,” as Bly called it. The poets they translated were mostly men, giving that canon—as well as the reading expectations that accompanied it—a distinctly masculine cast. This climate would have been hostile to Pizarnik’s work.
But her flowery, dramatic poems might also have come a little late. In the 1970s, U.S. poetry turned away from surrealism and extravagance to a more austere style (whether narrative poems about personal memories or experimental poems that rejected figurative language entirely), and by the ’80s, U.S. discussions of poetry in translation focused on a “poetry of witness,” a phrase most famously used by Carolyn Forché in her 1993 anthology Against Forgetting. The extravagance of foreign poets was explained by their direct experience of political oppression. This frame would not work for Pizarnik, who died before the coup in Argentina. Indeed, it is hard to fit her into any single context, this queer poet and child of Jewish immigrants who was born in Buenos Aires but spent formative years in Europe.
Yet perhaps the most compelling explanation of her long invisibility in the United States is that Pizarnik is the kind of poet—like Sylvia Plath, to whom she is often compared—who overwhelms, who puts us under her spell, who drives “the young” to write flowery verse. It is these features of her work that make her so troubling for a U.S. poetry still so intent on control, mastery, economy, and the agency of the poet. Pizarnik explodes the pervasive Anglo-American ideal of moderation, and out spills a tide of avatars and addressees under the glamour of her necrotic moon. - Johannes Göransson

Revered by Octavio Paz and Roberto Bolaño, Alejandra Pizarnik is still a hidden treasure in the U.S. Extracting the Stone of Madness comprises all of her middle to late work, as well as a selection of posthumously published verse. Obsessed with themes of solitude, childhood, madness, and death, Pizarnik explored the shifting valences of the self and the border between speech and silence. In her own words, she was drawn to “the suffering of Baudelaire, the suicide of Nerval, the premature silence of Rimbaud, the mysterious and fleet- ing presence of Lautréamont,” and to the “unparalleled intensity” of Artaud’s “physical and moral suffering.”

The Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik conjured her own world from the dark: “The night closes in like water over a stone,” “The night is shaped like a howling wolf,” “The night in your mask carries bolts of lightning,” “On this night in this world / where anything is possible / except for / a poem.” Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962–1972 the first comprehensive English-language collection of Pizarnik’s work, is a book to be read by the light of a single swinging bulb.
Pizarnik was born to Russian Jewish refugees in Buenos Aires in 1936, and she died there, of a deliberate overdose of Seconal, in 1972. Her brief life was dedicated to study and shame: Universidad de Buenos Aires, the Sorbonne, journalism, chapbooks. She was a depressive insomniac who spoke Spanish with a Yiddish accent and a stutter. Paris was a bright spot: she spent four years there in the Sixties, translating Aimé Césaire (who championed Négritude) and Henri Michaux (who championed mescaline), and carousing with feminists and Octavio Paz. On a cursory read her work can seem to evanesce, in that purple-prose-poetry haze that attends the work of even the most talented devotees of Baudelaire, Nerval, Rimbaud, Verlaine — along with anyone enamored of the wayward rage of Artaud and the cruel morbidities of Lautréamont. But to bear down on Pizarnik’s scant lines is to find their essential rigor: nothing is brittle, nothing breaks. The continental perfumes have all been diffused to bare the corpus delicti.
Stones, bones, coffins, and effigies: throughout her poems images recur until they acquire the status of relics. She’ll mention “an animal” but refuse to specify which. The only flower that exists for her is the lilac. A score of poems combine three pronouns: an “I” she claims confessionally, a “you” of changeable gender but unchangeable yearning, and a “she” who tries, and fails, to bridge the distances between. The beauty of some poems depends on their verbs, which shock the repeated nouns out of their blankness: air is “tattooed” by an absence, hands “want to dusk me, they plan to death me.” (“Me quieren anochecer, me van a morir.”) The beauty of others depends on their titles, which have to be reread for a belated, or posthumous, surprise:
The absent figures are sighing, and the night is thick. The night is the color of the eyelids of the dead.
All night long I make the night. All night long I write. Word by word I am writing the night.
The poem is called “Deaf Lantern,” which suggests that a lantern — or even a poet — might perform an intended role so naturally that no one ever notices what it — or she — is incapable of.
Pizarnik’s autobiographical impulses all relate to frustration: her “she” contends with prison, exile, sciamachy, “time like a glove upon a drum.” Being blocked seems to have been a mode of life, which she endured by converting it into a mode of writing. Nouns, as possessions, had to be weighty, burdening; verbs, requiring action or engagement, had to cause vertigo; adjectives (“deaf,” “blind,” “black,” “forgotten”) would obliterate the senses; metaphors would be “a trap, or simply another scene in a play”:
Winter the hound was gnawing at my smile. On the bridge. I was naked and wore a hat with flowers, and dragged my dead body, also naked and wearing a hat of dry leaves.
I have had many loves, I said, but of all these, the greatest was my love of mirrors.
After three years of writing these columns, that’s how I’ll close my last — with a poem entitled “A Dream in Which Silence Is Golden.”  - Joshua Cohen

When away from Buenos Aires, I miss its sounds: the shrieks and yelps of kids on playgrounds, squawks and car horns, carts with giant wheels that scrape against the cobblestones, shouts, yips, chirps, steps. The dazzling, dizzying southern sun. The boisterous vegetation in the city’s parks—the gnarled roots of hundred-year-old rubber trees; the palo borracho with its creamy pink flowers and its spike-lined trunk.
The city smells of honeysuckle and urine, and of charring flesh on Sundays as families gather and grill. Men stare you down as you pass, proposing marriage or an assortment of sexual acts; the city’s buses, traveling in packs to stave off armed robbery, careen through ornamental crosswalks as mufferless motorcycles veer out of their way.
This constellation of incongruous and overwhelming forces is depicted differently over the course of Argentina’s rich artistic and literary tradition. An especially arresting perspective is taken by the poet Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972), whose mature works, published and unpublished, are being nimbly translated into English by Yvette Siegert in a beautiful volume entitled Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972, soon to be published by New Directions. In many of these poems we find ourselves cloistered against the frenzy of the outside world, as in this piece from 1965’s Works and Nights, called “Single Room”:
If you dare to frighten
the truth out of this old wall—
and its fissures, its gashes
that form faces and sphinxes
and hands and clepsydras—
surely a presence
for your thirst will emerge,
and no doubt this absence
that drinks you dry will leave you.
Siegert attains the forcefulness of the original Spanish, rendering perfectly, too, Pizarnik’s signature clash between two tempos: outside the dashes (themselves helpfully inserted by Siegert) there is a plodding sadness, while on the inside a frenzied force leaves the reader breathless, mentally pummeled by each successive item. In English, the penultimate item on the list, “hands,” acts as a bridge between the somewhat spectral “faces and sphinxes” and the ancient timepieces that end the sequence, “hands” both as body parts and as components of watches and clocks; “clepsydras” then casts back—again, in English—to “faces,” as well. (This is not the only instance of resonance gained in translation. The intriguingly aphoristic “Paths of the Mirror,” from 1968’s Extracting the Stone of Madness reads: “Dazzle of the new day, the yellow birds in the morning.” The line reads gorgeously in Siegert’s rendering, as the homonym “mourning” contributes usefully to the alternation in the poem between melancholy and sporadic hope.) “Clepsydras” itself serves as memento mori, the almost inevitable association of the passage of time with our looming mortality confirmed in the double meaning of the word’s Polish equivalent, “klepsydra”: both a timepiece and an obituary. (Although Polish was among the native languages of Pizarnik’s immigrant parents, it is unlikely that Pizarnik herself, whose principal languages were Spanish and French, would have been aware of this denotative confluence.)
The “fissures” and “gashes” (also well served by Siegert’s dashes) that mar or at least mark “this old wall” comprise, in combination with the wall itself, the cornerstone of Pizarnik’s poetic oeuvre. The play between presence and absence becomes the ontological chiaroscuro in which this cornerstone gets rendered.
It is an architecture of abjection, of desperation, and intermittently, as well as ultimately, of absolute despair. 
Buenos Aires, with its myriad shapes and colors and incredible textures, has been the great love of my life thus far. With its walks on sidewalks that shapeshift every block or so, now tiny beige and black tiles arranged at a diagonal, now corrugated concrete, shattered into pieces here and there to expose earth and brand new weeds. With its vines that intertwine with weathered air-conditioning units hovering over incongruous buildings actively in progress and partially effaced by glittering clouds of welders’ sparks and bowed and precarious planks.
In no other place I know of is our universe’s ceaseless cycle of renewal and collapse on plainer or opener display. This plenitude is potent, even intoxicating. But when Pizarnik retreats from the ruckus and the chaos of her native Buenos Aires, erecting stanzas like walls, I know why. Sometimes even for me it gets to be too much. Sometimes, I take my walks wearing earplugs as well as sunglasses; sometimes I barely even leave the house.
The reader senses Pizarnik striving for a kind of poetic carapace that will fully encase her, both protecting and separating her from the messy and overwhelming world without. From 1971’s A Musical Hell, a poem entitled “Cornerstone” dives into this inner world:
I wanted my doll fingers to go inside the keys. I didn’t want to pass lightly over the keyboard like a spider. What I wanted was to sink into it, to fasten and nail myself there, then harden into stone. I wanted to go into the keyboard in order to go inside the music and find my own country.
Pizarnik’s poems, particularly those written in prose, are like clenched fists. This is even truer of the Spanish original in this case, in which “What I wanted was to sink into it, to fasten and nail myself there, then harden into stone” is “Yo quería hundirme, clavarme, fijarme, petrificarme.” The relentless repetition of the quasi-violent self-reflexive verbs really reads like a beating.
Pizarnik “wanted” to hole up inside her poems to be within music to have a homeland (“Yo quería entrar en el teclado para entrar adentro de la música para tener una patria.”). That was what she wanted. But that wasn’t what she got.  
“Normality is a tightrope-walker above the abyss of abnormality,” writes Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz in his first novel, which he published in Poland just before accidentally immigrating to Argentina on the eve of World War II. Only a few years later, Pizarnik’s poems began walking the fine line between self and language, a slack dialectic insofar as neither side of it is sure.
On the one hand, there is the unpredictability of an unruly self, a self that turns out to be unfathomable, even to itself. Take the posthumously published “On This Night, In This World”:
the thing about the soul is it doesn’t see itself
the thing about the mind is it doesn’t see itself
the thing about the spirit is it doesn’t see itself
where does this conspiracy of invisibilities come from?
not one word is visible
And from the same poem, and on the other hand, there is the fundamental unreliability of language, words mere smoke and mirrors:
do not make love
they make absence
if i said water would i drink?
if i said bread would i eat?
As Tzvetan Todorov writes in “Language and its Doubles,” “it is impossible to conceive of the origin of language without postulating the absence of objects at the outset.” If the thing we wanted to name, in other words, were present, there would be no need to name it. There would be no need to request or refuse it because we could directly interact with it in whatever way we chose. At the same time, as Michał Paweł Markowski writes in Desire for Presence, “all forms of representation do make present in some way the thing they represent—for without that connection, they would simply be suspended in a sort of semantic vacuum.” Language, then, is the playground par excellence of presence and absence. And presence and absence, the predatory sun and shifty shadow that appear throughout her oeuvre, are the contrasting keys of Pizarnik’s bicephalous worldview, while the cracked wall that casts shadows but also admits the sun is Pizarnik’s whole world. Take “Naming You,” a poem from Works and Nights again (1965), included here in its entirety:
Not the poem about your absence,
just a drawing, a crevice in the wall,
something in the wind, a bitter taste.
The “poem about your absence” is rejected and reduced first to a form of graphein that is prior to writing, second to the crack in the wall itself, and finally, in a flurry of sensory synesthesia, to a sound and a scent and a taste. Thus the eponymous project of the poem fails, as the poem undoes itself line by line. From Extracting the Stone of Madness (1968), “Vertigo, or a Contemplation of Things that Come to an End” intrudes even further into the real world:
This lilac unleaves.
It falls from itself
and hides its ancient shadow.
I will die of such things.
This notion of self-splitting, frequently with lethal consequences, appears time and again in Pizarnik’s poetry. It turns up in her diary, as well: “if I could divorce myself,” she writes from Paris on March 8, 1961, “I wouldn’t hesitate to do so, and I’d leave.” Although the self is the only refuge from the violent world, the self itself is terrifying, oppressive—also to be fled. Pizarnik predicts throughout her diary that she will eventually commit suicide, as she does in the last line of “Vertigo,” and as she did, in fact, on September 25, 1972.
Poems like “Vertigo” are like well-tended fires, all intensity at their core with off-handed aporetics and casual duress like oxygen produced by fanning flames. Her prose poems, again, are tighter. The duplicity and proliferation of selves becomes a maddening labyrinth of mirrors, as in the book’s eponymous poem “Extracting the Stone of Madness”:
You wish to be someone else. Your other self wishes she were someone else. What is happening in that green grove? It so happens that it isn’t even green; there isn’t even a grove.
There is no stable self, but nor is there anything outside the self. The grass is never greener because there is no grass—there is only solitary confinement, and it is evidently a life sentence that cannot possibly be commuted. “Solitude is not being able to articulate the solitude,” she notes in “The Word for Desire,” from the same collection. The Shadow Texts, meanwhile, first published posthumously, ventures even further into the carnivalesque:
Shadow is disconcerted. She tells herself that really she works too much ever since Shadow died. Everything is a pretext for being a pretext, Shadow thought shadily.
Pizarnik is both repulsed and allured by an absolute solipsism that is simultaneously adulterated by the paradoxical conviction that no element of the self can be believed in. As she writes in her diary on April 11, 1961, “What fascinates me about masturbation is the wide range of possible transformations it offers. That ability to be subject and object at the same time… the abolition of time, of space…” And so she writes obsessively about why she writes; she writes obsessively about not being able to write. Again, from Extracting the Stone of Madness:
And the grey pier and the red houses And it is not yet solitude And the eyes see a black square with a circle of lilac music at its core And the garden of earthly delights exists only outside the gardens And solitude is not being able to say it And the grey pier and the red houses.
Another instance of synesthesia, and a jumble of conflicting desires; the dogged return to the self only to find that the path is treacherous, and the destination mere mirage. From Uncollected Poems, “The Dark One”:
And why did she speak as if silence were a great wall and words were the colors destined to cover it?
Silence is not a great wall to be covered with colors, although the speaker speaks as if it were, nor are colors words. The wall is words, a relentlessly self-renewing, self-effacing palimpsest that renders silence impossible. The wall connects the self to the world; the wall also separates the self from the world. The wall is also cracked, and these cracks threaten the integrity of the wall, but the speaker can’t stop picking at them, thereby extending and expanding them in spite of her aversion to whatever lies outside her cell. But her aversion to what lies within her cell is equal to if not greater than this first aversion, which means the problem is insoluble, and thus the perpetual escalation of onanism into self-harm, a crescendo into suicide.  
There is street art and graffiti galore in Buenos Aires, the fine plumage of a peacock on the garage door of a Coghlan house, a sweetly hideous two-story walrus with a lobster’s tail, all shades of gray, in Villa Crespo, and alongside it a series of slogans, dedicated declarations of love, desperate entreaties addressed to lost loves, stray words and letters and indistinguishable shapes. In San Telmo and La Boca, enormous allegories of capitalism and its perils; the life-sized outlines of people disappeared during Argentina’s last dictatorship; local athletes; geometric patterns; a lion in a suit and tie. Names, initials, symbols. Peeling political banners that offer glimpses underneath of other ads and other colors; the three stripes of the cumbia concert posters; the sheets of plain white paper cut into thin strips at the bottom so passers-by can take the phone numbers of English teachers, music teachers, match-makers, fortune-tellers, prostitutes, cleaning services, drivers, booksellers. These most openly provisional segments of the fabric of the city are among my favorites. I often find it hard to resist trailing my fingers along the shadow-dappled, multi-colored walls as I walk past. Often, that is, I don’t resist. And then I think of the gashes and fissures in the cell walls of Pizarnik’s poems—of that porous, blemished fortress of the self and of the fight it nonetheless put up, a poetic tour de force.
- Jennifer Croft

Alejandra Pizarnik, A Musical Hell, Trans. by Yvette Siegert, New Directions 2013.

“An aura of legendary prestige surrounds the work of Alejandra Pizarnik,” writes César Aira. Her last collection to be published before her suicide in 1972, A Musical Hell is the first book of poems by Pizarnik to be published in its entirety in the U.S. Pizarnik writes at the edge of poetic impossibility, opening with a blues singer, expanding into silence, and closing into a theater of shadows and songs of the drowned.
— The flower of distance is blooming. I want you to look through the window and
tell me what you see: inconclusive gestures, illusory objects, failed shapes.… Go
to the window as if you’d been preparing for this your entire life.

Alejandra Pizarnik’s poems live in the borderlands. They inhabit the penumbra between silence and speech, drunkenness and sobriety, and above all night and day: her writing teeters on the edge. It wavers and threatens to fall, promising to collapse the binary terms of the edifice of meaning. She revels in contradiction, holding opposites in tense suspension.
Her poems often hesitate at the threshold of speech. “I cannot speak with my voice, so I speak with my voices,” begins one early poem in the new, brilliant translation of A Musical Hell, originally published as El infierno musical in 1971. Contradictory, multiple, her many volitions lead to paralysis: “no, / I should do something; / no, / I should do nothing at all.” The two voices and the two wills correspond to an equally divided self: “myself who is she and is I, unspeakably different from her.”
In the letter included as a preface to A Musical Hell, Julio Cortázar mimics this fragmentation, even if his effect is the opposite of hers: “Your secret popularity,” he writes from Paris, “inhabits the Latin Quarter. There’s a painter here who signs his work Piza; another signs his Arnik. Someone’s come out with a cocktail called the Alejandra.” The effect is not to diminish the force of her work, but rather to imagine her name proliferating, occupying all corners of space. Cortázar imagines an amplified, even while fragmented, Pizarnik. He addresses her as “Alejandrísima.”
This superlative serves today as a reminder of Pizarnik’s central place in recent Argentine poetry. In her home country, her figure is legendary. She died young, in 1972 at the age of thirty-six, and her final poems still provoke passionate attractions. They often straddle the line between darkness and light, twin terms easily recast as avatars of death and life. They wound the reader. “Your book hurts me,” wrote Cortázar in his letter. Their intensity is not anomalous within Pizarnik’s larger oeuvre. Octavio Paz wrote about Árbol de Diana (1962) that her poems reflected and concentrated rays of light. One of her literary protégés, novelist César Aira, places her work squarely within the surrealist tradition. Cortázar makes a similar association, attributing something like magnetic or shamanic powers to her poems, imagining “that for a second I’m on the other side, that they have helped me cross over.” He may have had in mind one of her poems in A Musical Hell, titled “From the Other Side.”
If myth-making is not our aim, however, we can read Pizarnik in a simpler key. Her work stages a constant struggle with form. She details its emergence. “Little paper girls of various colors are falling from the sky,” we read in one poem. “Can colors speak? Can paper images speak? Only the gold ones speak, but there are no more of those around here.” These girls made of paper (folded like origami, or flat like paper dolls?) seem prefabricated. They fall from the sky; the observer is left to wonder at their capabilities. However, on other occasions we witness a more dynamic struggle with the shape of dolls: “Dolls gutted by my worn doll hands—the disappointment that they’re made of burlap (and your memory a barren lap).” The speaker’s doll hands are simultaneously destroying and shaping the figure of another doll, emptying out its insides, presumably leaving only its limp figure. So often in these poems the shape of things represents a failure (“inconclusive gestures, illusory objects, failed shapes”). Forms are made and unmade in the same gesture.
This gesture is made of language, but Pizarnik constantly points beyond words. She speaks something, anything, but also plans “to hide behind language”—not speaking, doing something else. At times the result seems felicitous. “The light of language covers me like music,” begins one prose fragment. Words generate an immersive environment, bathing the speaker in light, but this image is followed by a simile that undoes it: “like a picture ripped to shreds by the dogs of grief.” To me, this image is one of the more memorable in A Musical Hell. It undoes the harmonic relationship with language imagined in what precedes it.
The emergence of shape out of matter is the central concern of this book. Two of the collection’s four sections begin with the word “shape” (“figura,” in Spanish). Sometimes it seems that shape corresponds to form as an idea, one at odds with its earthly incarnations: “Music falls into music the way my voice falls into my voices.” This sounds like Platonism, but it’s not, for form is as multiple and molecular as its earthly manifestations. How does music fall into music? “Like sand sifting through an hourglass.” Music is already fragmented, thousands of little grainy notes. We can imagine the poet intermittently inserting her finger into the flow of sand. She doesn’t so much make an object as momentarily alter the flow of matter in motion.
Thus when her hands are the hands of dolls, the speaker tries to build a house within motion itself:
I wanted my doll fingers to go inside the keys. I didn’t want to pass lightly over the keyboard like a spider. What I wanted was to sink into it, to fasten and nail myself there, then harden into stone. I wanted to go into the keyboard in order to go inside the music and find my own country. But the music—it swayed, it rushed. Only in the refrains did it have any potential, because there I could hope that a structure resembling a train station might be built: a firm and steady starting point, a place for departures, for moving from the place, and to the place, and for being in union and fusion with the place.
The speaker here wants many things, but above all she wants something solid, “firm and steady.” She wants to “fasten and nail herself,” “harden into stone,” and set up permanent camp in a “structure resembling a train station.” But she can’t; everything around her rushes, flows. Music is like a river. Its refrains represent a midpoint between stability and flux, but “the refrains were always too brief: I could never begin laying down a foundation.” The solution is abandonment of “music and its treachery,” finding a home in an itinerant “you” and ultimately, uncertainly, “in this poem as I write it.” The experience described, that of seeking solidity in a fluid world, corresponds to the struggle with form that runs throughout this collection.

That struggle generates desire, the desire to make and unmake, to live while being made and unmade: “If only I could live in a continual state of ecstasy, shaping the body of the poem with my own.” The poem is like a turtle shell, a home that grows as the body grows, or rather a home that is part of the body itself. In A Musical Hell, Pizarnik offers up the hope of such a poem. She also dashes it at every turn. And then she offers it up again. - Craig Epplin


Alejandra Pizarnik Exchanging Lives: Poems and Translations
Trans. by Susan Bassnett,Peepal Tree Press, 2002.

"Exchanging Lives makes available for the first time in English the work of an outstanding Latin American poet, the Argentinian Alejandra Pizarnik. Pizarnik's work has been celebrated in feminist criticism for its subversive use of violent myth (comparable to the later work of Angela Carter). But Exchanging Lives is not a conventional translation, because the translator, Susan Bassnett, herself a published poet, enters into a personal dialogue with Pizarnik's poems. The dialogue is about finding womanist concerns that poet and translator share, but also about differences. Pizarnik, who described herself as "a silent woman/ . . . who sometimes flows with language," speaks of social isolation and not belonging, whereas Bassnett finds herself fighting for personal writing space. The effect of the dialogue in the book is to bring the person of Pizarnik, as well as her poems, into closer focus.

Alejandra Pizarnik, From The Forbidden Garden: Letters from Alejandra Pizarnik to Antonio Beneyto, Bucknell University Press, 2003.

Read it at Google Book

From the Forbidden Garden: Letters from Alejandra Pizarnik to Antonio Beneyto is a powerful epistolary. The letters in this collection form a self-portrait of one of the greatest Latin American poets of the twentieth century. They display her insight, the forcefulness of her language, and humorous use of wordplay and puns, offering us a much more intimate portrait than any biographer could achieve. We see Pizarnik (1936-1972) was an exceptional correspondent who wrote lively, perceptive letters, which reveal her personality and creative process. She knew the pleasures and value of written correspondence as a way to bring people closer.
This selection of thirty letters and two postcards, written between September 2, 1969, and September 12, 1972, includes most of Pizarnik's correspondence with Spanish writer-editor-artist Antonio Beneyto. From these informative letters we learn about her influences, the artists, poets, and writers she preferred, and her reactions to them. She collaborated on various projects and cultivated many literary and personal ties with writers of the stature of Julio Cortázar, Olga Orozco, Octavio Paz, Pieyre de Mandiargues, Silvina Ocampo, and Luisa Sofovich, among others.

Adam Cornelius Bert, ed., Alejandra Pizarnik, Chromo Publishing, 2012.

"Please note that the content of this book primarily consists of articles available from Wikipedia or other free sources online. Alejandra Pizarnik (April 29, 1936 - September 25, 1972) was an Argentine poet. She was born on April 29, 1936 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in Avellaneda, a suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina. A year after entering the department of Philosophy and Letters at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, Pizarnik published her first book of poetry, La tierra más ajena (1955). Soon after, she studied painting with Juan Batlle Planas. Pizarnik followed her debut work with two more volumes of poems, La última inocencia (1956) and Las aventuras perdidas (1958). From 1960 to 1964 Pizarnik lived in Paris. There she worked for the journal Cuadernos, sat on the editorial board of the magazine Les Lettres Nouvelles, and participated in the Parisian literary world. Pizarnik also attended a variety of courses at the Sorbonne, including contemporary French Literature.

Fiona Joy Mackintosh, Childhood in the Works of Silvina Ocampo and Alejandra Pizarnik 

Read it Google Books

As a fiction writer who was very active for years as a freelance reviewer focusing primarily on innovative European and Latin American literature, I became acquainted with the poetry (and short prose) of Alejandra Pizarnik. A native of Buenos Aires, Pizarnik traveled to Paris—like her great friend and fellow writer Julio Cortázar—and came to admire the work of Georges Bataille and André Pieyre de Mandiargues, both rather provocative, transgressive authors. In fact, The Bloody Countess, Pizarnik’s vividly disturbing prose piece about the infamous, sixteenth-century Countess Báthory, who allegedly murdered hundreds of girls, seems related to Bataille’s obsessive and violently perverse texts.
The edginess and darkness that inform The Bloody Countess are found to varying degrees in much of Pizarnik’s poetry, and is perhaps the chief reason why I am so drawn it—I tend to like unsettling texts. And certainly this is not comfortable work, and it’s sometimes puzzling in its symbolic imagery. Yet it conveys a constant sense of longing that is rendered quite tersely and often beautifully. The poetry is filled with references to silence and death, and it’s perhaps not all that surprising that Pizarnik, who died in 1972 at the age of thirty-six, was an apparent suicide. As with Sylvia Plath, we can’t quite divorce her final act from her poems, as we similarly can’t when we read the work of Sylvia Plath. Plath, of course, is widely known today, but Pizarnik still remains rather obscure, except to fellow Argentines, scholars and devoted readers of Latin American literature. My hope is that this will change. Though there are two volumes of her work available in English, both are quite compressed and published by very small presses. The good news is that the first complete English translation of her 1971 A Musical Hell is soon to appear from New Directions.
In any case, I chose the following poem as representative of her very stark, memorable work:
“The Cage”
It’s sunny outside.
It’s only a sun
Yet men look at it
and sing.
I don’t know about the sun.
I know about the melody of angels
and the heated sermon
of the last wind.
I know how to scream until dawn
when death settles naked
on my shadow.
I cry beneath my name.
I wave handkerchiefs in the night
and boats thirsty for reality
dance with me.
I hide my nails
to mock my sickly dreams.
It’s sunny outside.
I dress in ashes.
(From Alejandra Pizarnik, A Profile, edited with an introduction by Frank Graziano—translated by Maria Rosa Fort, Frank Graziano and Suzanne Jill Levine, pub. Logbridge-Rhodes, 1987) - Ronald De Feo


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